Tag Archives: Charles Baudelaire

Paul Gauguin and Baudelaire: Exotic Perfume

24 Mar

”…A langorous island, where Nature abounds
With exotic trees and luscious fruit;
And with men whose bodies are slim and astute,
And with women whose frankness delights and astounds… (Charles Baudelaire, Exotic Perfume)*

1894. Day of the Gods (Mahana no atua) - Paul GauguinPaul Gauguin, Day of the Gods (Mahana no atua), 1894

Throughout history some artists felt a need to physically step away from their surroundings; Eugene Delacroix travelled to North Africa, Vincent van Gogh to Arles, while his ‘friend’ Paul Gauguin sought inspiration on the other side of the world – on Tahiti. Gauguin desperately tried to escape the rotten European civilization, he said: Civilization is what makes you sick, and he first set sail for Tahiti on 1 April 1891. Vibrant-coloured landscape, voluptuous women, warm sea, sunny weather, exotic trees and luscious fruit all undoubtedly had a lasting impact on Gauguin’s art.

Painting Day of the Gods (Mahana no atua) is a great example of Gauguin’s vibrant landscapes. It shows that he soaked up the atmosphere of Tahiti. Gauguin painted it in 1894, either in Paris or in the small Breton village of Pont Aven. It wasn’t the most productive year of his life; he was in poor health and in debts. However, the painting illustrates Gauguin’s thought ‘I shut my eyes in order to see‘; the landscape he painted came from the memory, and no matter how exotic and vibrant Tahiti was in reality, Gauguin’s painting is deliberately more colourful.

Subject of this painting is Polynesian religion. Central place in the background is occupied by a goddess Hina. I’m not particularly a connoisseur of Polynesian mythology and religion, so I’m going to quote Richard Brettell: ‘…idol Hina, which Gauguin derived less from Tahitian or Polynesian traditions than from Indian and Southeast Asian prototypes. For this reason, the painting can be interpreted as representing a universal, non-Christian religion.’ (source) A few more figures grace the background; two women carrying food, probably fruit, on a plate, possibly in order to offer them to the goddess, then a flute-playing woman that sits below the statue of Hina, and two dancers in red-orange tunics.Behind the scene we see a long beach with yellow sand, mountains and blue sky with clouds. Three interesting figures in the foreground symbolise the three Ages of Man — birth, life, and death, which is reminiscent of the story of Oedipus and Sphinx’s riddle. Sphinx’s question was: What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?‘ And Oedipus’ reply was: ‘Man.‘ The pool is perhaps the most interesting thing in the painting. Its surface is utterly unrelated to anything that goes on in the scene; it shows nor the reflections of the sky nor the figures on the beach, but the irregular spots of orange, indigo, light blue, red, green and yellow colour. This leads us to Gauguin’s perception of art, which is based upon symbolism, on dreams and metaphors.

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Do not copy nature too much. Art is an abstraction.* (Gauguin)

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Gauguin’s ‘getaway’ from Europe and his disgust with Western civilisation represent the sentiment shared across Europe within intellectual and artistic circles, in times of ‘fin de siecle’. Gauguin wanted to escape from ‘everything that is artificial and conventional’, and hoped to live a more pure, primitive life on Tahiti. Baudelaire embarked on a somewhat similar journey, thought not willingly. He was sent to India by his stepfather in order to break his bad habits of visiting brothels, drinking, not focusing on his studies etc. Although short, the trip infused in him a sentiment for exoticism, sea and sailing, and that resulted in poems such as ‘Exotic Perfume’. I often had similar thoughts myself; about purity of life somewhere on the island, untainted by civilisation, somewhere where one could walk barefoot all day, pick fruit off the branches and eat it, really feel the rain… But, just like Baudelaire, for me the reveries about exotic lands would be better than reality of actually living there. I’m a product of European culture, and that’s something I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to deprive myself from.

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Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Art

22 Mar

These are some paintings that come to my mind when I read Baudelaire and Rimbaud’s poetry. Mostly the works of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, and other artists as well.

1863. Olympia - ManetEdouard Manet, Olympia, 1863

The Jewels by Baudelaire

My darling was naked, and knowing my heart well,
She was wearing only her sonorous jewels,
Whose opulent display made her look triumphant
Like Moorish concubines on their fortunate days.

(…)

She had lain down; and let herself be loved
From the top of the couch she smiled contentedly
Upon my love, deep and gentle as the sea,
Which rose toward her as toward a cliff.

Her eyes fixed upon me, like a tamed tigress,
With a vague, dreamy air she was trying poses,
And by blending candor with lechery,
Her metamorphoses took on a novel charm…

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1862. Jeanne Duval, in a painting by Édouard ManetJeanne Duval, in a painting by Édouard Manet, 1862

To a Colonial Lady by Baudelaire

In scented countries by the sun caressed
I’ve known, beneath a tent of purple boughs,
And palmtrees shedding slumber as they drowse,
A creole lady with a charm unguessed.

She’s pale, and warm, and duskily beguiling;
Nobility is moulded in her neck;
Slender and tall she holds herself in check,
An huntress born, sure-eyed, and quiet-smiling.

Should you go, Madam, to the land of glory
Along the Seine or Loire, where you would merit
To ornament some mansion famed in story,

Your eyes would bum in those deep-shaded parts,
And breed a thousand rhymes in poets’ hearts,
Tamed like the negro slaves that you inherit.” (Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire, New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)

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1886. Woman in the Bath -DegasDegas, Woman in the Bath, 1887

Venus Anadyomene by Rimbaud

Out of what seems a coffin made of tin
A head protrudes; a woman’s, dark with grease –
Out of a bathtub! – slowly; then a fat face
With ill-concealed defects upon the skin.

Then streaked and grey, a neck; a shoulder-blade,
A back – irregular, with indentations –
Then round loins emerge, and slowly rise;
The fat beneath the skin seems made of lead;

The spine is somewhat reddish; then, a smell,
Strangely horrible; we notice above all
Some microscopic blemishes in front…

Horribly beautiful! A title: Clara Venus;
Then the huge bulk heaves, and with a grunt
She bends and shows the ulcer on her anus.*

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1894. Day of the Gods (Mahana no atua) - Paul GauguinPaul Gauguin, Day of the Gods (Mahana no atua)1894

Exotic Perfume by Baudelaire

When, with closed eyes in autumn’s eves of gold,
I breathe the burning odour of your breasts,
Before my eyes the hills of happy rest
Bathed in the sun’s monotonous fires, unfold.

A langorous island, where Nature abounds
With exotic trees and luscious fruit;
And with men whose bodies are slim and astute,
And with women whose frankness delights and astounds.*

Led by that perfume to these lands of ease,
I see a port where many ships have flown
With sails out wearied of the wandering seas; 
While the faint odours from green tamarisks blown,
Float to my soul and in my senses throng,
And mingle vaguely with the sailor’s song.’
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1873. Claude Monet, Autumn on the Seine, ArgenteuilClaude Monet, Autumn on the Seine, Argenteuil, 1873
Autumn Song by Paul Verlaine
When a sighing begins
In the violins
Of the autumn-song,
My heart is drowned
In the slow sound
Languorous and longPale as with pain,
Breath fails me when
The hours toll deep.
My thoughts recover
The days that are over,
And I weep.And I go
Where the winds know,
Broken and brief,
To and fro,
As the winds blow
A dead leaf.*
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1900-05. Ophelia by Odilon RedonOdilon Redon, Ophelia, 1900-1905

Ophelia by Rimbaud

I

On the calm black water where the stars are sleeping
White Ophelia floats like a great lily ;
Floats very slowly, lying in her long veils…
– In the far-off woods you can hear them sound the mort.

For more than a thousand years sad Ophelia
Has passed, a white phantom, down the long black river.
For more than a thousand years her sweet madness
Has murmured its ballad to the evening breeze.

The wind kisses her breasts and unfolds in a wreath
Her great veils rising and falling with the waters ;
The shivering willows weep on her shoulder,
The rushes lean over her wide, dreaming brow.

The ruffled water-lilies are sighing around her ;
At times she rouses, in a slumbering alder,
Some nest from which escapes a small rustle of wings ;
– A mysterious anthem falls from the golden stars.

II

O pale Ophelia ! beautiful as snow !
Yes child, you died, carried off by a river !
– It was the winds descending from the great mountains of Norway
That spoke to you in low voices of better freedom.

It was a breath of wind, that, twisting your great hair,
Brought strange rumors to your dreaming mind ;
It was your heart listening to the song of Nature
In the groans of the tree and the sighs of the nights ;

It was the voice of mad seas, the great roar,
That shattered your child’s heart, too human and too soft ;
It was a handsome pale knight, a poor madman
Who one April morning sate mute at your knees !

Heaven ! Love ! Freedom ! What a dream, oh poor crazed Girl !
You melted to him as snow does to a fire ;
Your great visions strangled your words
– And fearful Infinity terrified your blue eye !

III

– And the poet says that by starlight
You come seeking, in the night, the flowers that you picked
And that he has seen on the water, lying in her long veils
White Ophelia floating, like a great lily.*

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1897. The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning by PissarroPissarro, The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning, 1897

The Seven Old Men by Baudelaire

To Victor Hugo

City swarming with people, how full you are of dreams!
Here in broad daylight, surely, the passerby may meet
A specter, — be accosted by him! Mystery seems
To move like a thick sap through every narrow street.

I thought (daybreak, it was, in a sad part of town)
“These houses look much higher in the fog!” — they stood
Like two gray quays between which a muddy stream flows down;
The setting of the play matched well the actor’s mood.

All space became a dirty yellow fog; I tried
To fight it off; I railed at my poor soul, whose feet,
Weary already, dragged and stumbled at my side.
Big wagons, bound for market, began to shake the street….*

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1859. The Absinthe Drinker ( Le Buveur d'absinthe)by Édouard ManetÉdouard Manet, The Absinthe Drinker ( Le Buveur d’absinthe), 1859

Le Vin du solitaire by Baudelaire

The wildering glances of a harlot fair
seen gliding toward us like the silver wake
of undulant moonlight on the quivering lake
when Phoebe bathes her languorous beauty there;

the last gold coins a gambler’s fingers hold;
the wanton kiss of love-worn Adeline,
the wheedling songs that leave the will supine
— like far-off cries of sorrow unconsoled —

all these, o bottle deep, were never worth
the pungent balsams in thy fertile girth
stored for the pious poet’s thirsty heart;

thou pourest hope and youth and strength anew,
— and pride, this treasure of the beggar-crew,
that lifts us like triumphant gods, apart!*

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1883. Au Foyer du Théâtre, 1883, Jean-Louis ForainJean-Louis Forain, Au Foyer du Théâtre, 1883

Pagan Prayer by Baudelaire

Don’t stint the fires with which you flare.
Warm up my dull heart to delight,
O Pleasure, torture of the sprite,
O Goddess, hear my fervent prayer!

Goddess, who through the ether pass,
Flame in this subterranean hole!
Raise up a chilled and stricken soul
Who lifts to you his peal of brass.

O Pleasure, always be my queen!
In flesh and velvet to be seen,
Mask your beauty like a siren:

Or else my soul with sleep environ
Drained from the formless mystic wine,
Elastic phantom! which is thine.’ *

— Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)

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1910. Girl with black hair - Egon SchieleEgon Schiele, Girl with black hair, 1910

The First Evening by Rimbaud

She was very much half-dressed
And big indiscreet trees
Threw out their leaves against the pane
Cunningly, and close, quite close.

Sitting half naked in my big chair,
She clasped her hands.
Her small and so delicate feet
Trembled with pleasure on the floor.

– The colour of wax, I watched
A little wild ray of light
Flutter on her smiling lips
And on her breast, – an insect on the rose-bush.

– I kissed her delicate ankles.
She laughed softly and suddenly
A string of clear trills,
A lovely laugh of crystal.

The small feet fled beneath
Her petticoat: “Stop it, do!”
– The first act of daring permitted,
Her laugh pretended to punish me!

– Softly I kissed her eyes,
Trembling beneath my lips, poor things:
– She threw back her fragile head
“Oh! come now that’s going too far!…

Listen, Sir, I have something to say to you…”
– I transferred the rest to her breast
In a kiss which made her laugh
With a kind laugh that was willing…

– She was very much half-dressed
And big indiscreet trees threw
Out their leaves against the pane
Cunningly, and close, quite close.*

Mademoiselle de Lancey by Carolus-Duran

2 Feb

In the pallid light of languishing lamps,
In deep cushions redolent of perfume,
Hippolyta dreamed of the potent caresses
That drew aside the veil of her young innocence.

She was seeking, with an eye disturbed by the storm,
The already distant skies of her naiveté,
Like a voyager who turns to look back
Toward the blue horizons passed early in the day.” (Damned Woman, Baudelaire)

1876. Mademoiselle de Lancey - Charles Auguste Émile DurandCharles Auguste Émile Durand, Mademoiselle de Lancey, 1876

What is this high society beauty, this femme fatale from the glorious days of French Second Empire, thinking about? Reclined on the sofa, surrounded by ‘deep cushions redolent of perfume’, supporting herself with one hand and holding a fan in the other. Her white dress with silver embellishments is exquisite, surely the latest fashion, sumptuous silk or satin. Quite a daring cut of the bodice, revealing both her shoulders and decolletage. Notice how her skirt is elegantly lifted with the intention to expose her lovely ankles and tiny feet in white shoes. Her gown reveals much and at the same time exudes simplicity and elegance. Her crossed legs and the position of her hands indicate dominance both in her chamber, and on the canvas.

Nevertheless, the most interesting part of the painting is her face. Perhaps it is not perfect per se, but it radiates confidence and charm, and awareness of these qualities. Oval porcelain face, large blue eyes, lips in colour of rose hip, forehead framed with dark brown curls. Hair adorned with flowers, hands with a bracelet and a ring: this damned woman is luxury itself, the most desired mistress of Paris, Jezebel, Lilith, Salome, Helen of Troy and Cleopatra of the 19th century Paris. This femme fatale gets what she wants.

She doesn’t need no roses, chocolates, and kisses in the moonlight. You’ll rue the day that you were born if you encounter this enchantress. If she stood up right now, her elegant step would be that of a gazelle, and the sound of her ruffling dress would resemble the finest melodies. This is the kind of woman that Baudelaire wrote poems about

Behold these smiling lips, suave and voluptuous,
Whose ecstasies of arrant self-love give us pause;
The mocking pawkishness of that long languid stare,
Those dainty features framed in luminous light gauze,
Whose every facet says with an all-conquering air:
‘Lo, Pleasure calls and Love crowns my triumphant head!” (Charles Baudelaire – The Mask)

Seems like the painter, Charles Auguste Émile Durand or simply known as Carolus-Duran is less important than the lady he painted. I didn’t say that, but I don’t deny it either. Carolus-Duran is most memorable for his portraits of Second French Empire ladies, and his paintings, as beautiful and appealing as they are, can never compete with those of Monet or Renoir who were his contemporaries. He was accepted by the art critics which speaks for itself.